Similar to but typically much larger than damselflies, dragonflies are large, agile insects that undertake a valuable role in the Earth’s ecosystems, eating mosquitoes and other smaller insects. Their powerful flight abilities stem from their streamlined abdomen and dual sets of intricately veined, membrane wings, which allow them to fly at speeds up to 97km/h (60mph). Dragonfly wingspans range from 2.5 to 15 centimetres (one to six inches). Their agility also stems from large bulging compound eyes, which on some of the larger species grant them almost 360-degree vision.
Unfortunately, this high performance comes at a cost – dragonfly muscles need to be warm in order to function properly. Therefore, for dragonfly wings to function optimally, the insect has to engage in a series of stationary wing-whirring exercises and elongated periods of basking in the Sun to generate requisite heat before taking off. However, when in flight, the large, warm and toned muscles deliver the dragonfly complete six-way propulsion, moving from a stationary/hovering position directly upwards, downwards, forwards, backwards and left to right.
Young dragonflies are called larvae and are aquatic rather than aerial predators. At this stage of their lifespan, they don’t possess any wings but sport a formidable anatomical structure not present in adults called the ‘mask’. The mask is a disproportionately large structure, to which a set of larger fangs is attached. When not in use, the mask is concealed under the larvae’s thorax, extended to capture prey such as tadpoles and aquatic worms. Larvae transform into full-grown dragonflies through a series of moultings, the final one leaving a distinctive exuvia (cast skin) behind.